Words and photos by Verena Zimmer
“Hi, I’m Verena, I’m here to pick up the Stevens Tremalzo rental bike”. I’m at Radsport Altig in Mannheim, a long standing family business formerly owned by the late German cycling legend Rudi Altig, who used to be my father’s cycle mechanic back in the day. A good omen, I think. The first thing I notice about the bike that would be my trusted steed for my very first bikepacking adventure was its colour: orange, nicely matching my jersey (can you imagine if I’d come dressed in pink?!). Next, I realise that my small triangle bag with my tool kit isn’t going to fit, thanks to the bottle holders, so I quickly convert what was meant to be my top tube snack bag. After a bit of faffing, my seat post pack fits fine, but my front roll doesn’t fit with the cables. I do a quick mental recap of my kit, and decide to ditch the thick woolly socks, woolly hat, long sleeved thermal top, and long sleeved spare jersey (for colder days!), all of which would be absolute essentials for any summer camping trip back home in Wales. Just as well, as I would have felt rather stupid carrying that lot around for a week in temperatures which would stay comfortably in the mid twenties even at night.
On the train to Frankfurt, feeling both nervous and excited, I reflect on the many family connections I have with the Taunus: My father was born and lived in Biebrich just outside Wiesbaden at the foot of the Taunus, and was a keen cyclist there in his youth. He proposed to my mother on a hiking trip through the Rheingau, just where we would be cycling. His best friend since school still lives in Huenstaetten. I have many fond childhood memories of hiking in the Taunus with my grandmother, and canoeing on the river Lahn with my parents. My cousin got married in Limburg cathedral, and his daughters live in Idstein and Bad Camberg.
“Excuse me”, the voice of a fellow cyclist travelling on the train brings me back to the here and now. He asks about my bike and whether I’m going on a longer trip, and seems really interested in Taunus bikepacking. Had he not left his gravel bike in his native Croatia, I think he might have been tempted to take the last spot….. I have a feeling we may see him there next year (if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name…). As I step off the train, the conductor asks if he can take a photo of my bag. By now, I’m starting to feel a bit like a celebrity. On to Hofheim, a quick stop a Rewe to pick up some supplies for tonight’s pre-ride BBQ, and before I know it, I arrive at the Diedesbergen speedway arena and am met by Jesko and Ryan, one of the event photographers. One by one, more riders, past riders, and their families arrive, and soon the party is in full swing. My feelings of nervousness and being not a little out of place among riders and bikes of such impressive calibre are outweighed by the really friendly atmosphere, warm welcome into the bikepacking community, and hearing that I’m not the only one who is new to bikepacking, or who has their own worries about the ride.
After a reassuringly warm and comfortable night’s sleep, a delicious breakfast spread is served, but I’m so nervous that I find it a real struggle to force anything down. I’ll spare you the details of my e-trex woes, but superhero Jochen comes to my last minute rescue, so I have at least the GPX tracks, albeit no map, so I would be riding just a purple line on a white screen (with some paper maps for backup). After a group photo and lap of the speedway led by the kids, we are off!
My plan is to ride around 100km a day, taking 8 days to complete the course, which would end up being pretty much exactly what I would do.
The landscape as well as the track are as beautiful as they are varied right from the start, and I could easily stop every few minutes to take photos. In terms of the riding, I am relieved to find that the constant ups and downs of the country lanes in mid Wales where I usually ride have been good preparation, just with a different surface. I stop at the cemetary in Wiesbaden and try to find my grandmother’s grave, but I can’t find it. As the field spreads out, I meet fewer and fewer riders on the way, but Michael and Thomas seem to be at every Rewe where I also stop, and I would meet these two many times over the coming days. As evening comes closer, we discover that we are all new to sleeping in the forest, and that we are heading roughly for the same area, so I decide to tag along, just for a bit of confidence building for the first night. We set up camp early, as heavy rain is forecast (but doesn’t materialise), and after a pleasant evening of sharing food, drink and stories, we all have a peaceful first night in the woods.
I set off on my own at around 5.30 the next morning, and discover the stunning beauty of riding in first light and in the fresh morning air. I see the first of many deer, right in front of me on the track. Not long after 6, in Idstein, I come to my first of the famously wonderous early morning opening German bakeries, and have some coffee and cake for breakfast. Again, I’m having to force the food down (which is not like me at all!); it seems as if the more my body surely needs food, the less it is wanting to eat it.
The day is as stunning and scorchingly hot as the previous one, and being Sunday the forests are busy with other walkers and cyclists. A couple walking their dog ask me if I am part of the same group who had passed the day before, and again I feel a little bit famous. I ride through a fire station open day, a vintage tractor ralley, past an outdoor theatre performance, and a triathlon – always a festival going on in Germany in the summer. At the triathlon, they ask me to take a detour. After detecting the slightly panicked look on my face, they ask me where I’m heading, and I explain that I’m just following that purple line. Such questions of where I am coming from, and where I am going, would become relatively frequent, slightly awkward conversations over the coming days, with me either vaguely pointing to some distant hills, or naming some random place names on the route, which was usually greeted with an admiring “Oh, that’s far” (if only they knew…). In the afternoon, I treat myself to a stop at an open air swimming pool which one of the riders has recommended on our whatsapp group, which is a brilliant source of support throughout the ride, giving me the feeling of being somehow alone but not alone. I’m now looking forward to spending my first night sleeping out alone. Pretty much exactly at 200km and around 8pm, I find myself at an open hilltop with spectacular views, a freshly mowed hay meadow with a hedge which looks like a good place to hide behind, and I decide to bed down for the night. Far too early, as it turns out, as no sooner have I blown up my sleeping mat, put same with sleeping bag into bivvy bag, inserted myself (why? I ask myself later, it was far too hot for all that) and tried to sleep, presumably thinking I ought to so that I would be rested for tomorrow, when, to my horror, a car turns into the very same field and a whole family tumbles out! Like any startled wild animal, I simply freeze and keep perfectly still, somehow hoping that – what, exactly?? That they would not see my and my bright orange bike?? That if they thought I was dead, they would simply go away?? After a while, a lady comes over and asks if I am ok. I reassure her that I am absolutely fine, and that I am “just resting” (ridiculous). I abandon thoughts of sleeping, and instead put myself into a sitting position which actually looks more like I am actually resting, and wait for it to go dark, feeling half sheepish at my rookie mistake, and half laughing at myself.
I am treated to an impossibly long, beautiful sunset all over a huge, open sky, followed by a short, starlit night, and then an equally stunning dawn. I don’t get much sleep at all, and from 3.30 am basically wait for it to get light enough to start riding again. Feeling very chuffed with myself for surviving my first solo sleepout, I cycle downhill towards the Rhine valley, and pull in at a bakery in Kiedrich for breakfast. A guy with a bike sitting outside drinking coffee and just about to leave hastily orders a second one, just so he can stare at me, so I sit inside and by 6.30 find myself already sweating – this heat is crazy. Today’s challenge is to pass through the infamously hot slopes of the vineyards adjoining the Rhine valley before the worst of the heat. As I leave, the guy outside asks me if I know much about bikes. “Not a clue” I say, truthfully. He has a problem with his gears, he says. One of the worst chat up lines ever, I laugh to myself as I ride on. After two stops at cemeteries to fill up my water bottles, I throw away my last remaining shop-bought water bottle, and am starting to feel like a bike packer! The vineyards are stunning, and just as I register a need for morning ablutions, a solution is miraculously provided by a seemingly randomly placed Dixie loo. I see a broken glass bottle on the track to late, and hold my breath for a few minutes waiting for the hissing sound – nothing, thank God. I take a wrong turn downhill, and have to stop, wrong gear. For a moment I’m cross, then as a turn to walk back uphill, I get a wonderful view back over Johannisberg, with a buzzard hovering above. The Rhine is beautiful, but I daren’t stop for long, as the day is heating up fast. Soon I am reunited with Michael and Thomas, and we ride together to Ruedesheim, Niederwaldenkmal, and Lorch.
The heat in the afternoon becomes hard to bear, especially in the open fields, and I don’t pass any shops for what feels like ages. I rest in the shade of a hilltop cemetery, and get chatting to an old man, who tells me how the cemeteries are getting more and more empty, as fewer people want the responsibility of looking after a family grave (local bikepackers, take note, our future water supply could be at risk…). He asks me where I’ve come from, where I’m going, and I try and explain the Taunus bikepacking concept to him. He looks mystified. I carry on, and eventually stop at Bogel, where I find an inn open, in desperate need of some food, drink, shade, and a phone charge. I have my first proper cooked meal, and notice that my left hand isn’t working properly (from the handlebars) and I have great difficulty using knife and fork. I check messages, and hear that many people have scratched for various reasons, and that temperatures later this week are expected to reach 40 degrees. A little worried about my hand, and the heat, I briefly wonder whether I should scratch too, then tell myself that I’ll get to checkpoint tomorrow in any case and take it from there. Getting ever more used to bikepacking mode, I ride on till about nine, feeling quite chuffed with myself for not even planning, or worrying, where I’ll sleep tonight, until I find an inviting looking spot in the forest. I turn off the track and find a tree with a perfect shape to lean on, then lie down and put my legs up. After the previous hot, sweaty nights, I don’t bother with the sleep mat and just put my sleeping bag on top of the bivvy bag. I pass the remaining daylight watching mosquitoes eat me alive, and as it gets dark, I am surrounded by glowworms. It’s magical, like a scene from Avatar. At around 1.30, I wake up, surprised that I have actually been asleep. About half a second later, I realize what has woken me up. There is something, no, two big somethings, rustling and snuffling around very close by, making very definitely piggy grunting noises: wild boar! I quickly pull my sleeping bag over my face, the adopt the freeze-play-dead pose the reader will by now be familiar with, my heart beating like crazy. After a while, they move on; another creature like a deer or fox passes, then I fall asleep again. I wake at 4, and slowly comb my hair and wait for enough light to ride. I ride off happily, looking forward to a change of scenery and some flatter sections along the river Lahn, and to getting to checkpoint. As I come around a corner, a large hare comes racing towards me, shortly afterwards followed by a fox. I come to the top of a long descent to Fruecht, with a road closure sign due to resurfacing. It’s 5am and the place is deserted, and in any case I would not know how to get around this section, so I just go for it, feeling once more thankful for my good fortune on this trip.
After a gorgeous, long descent on freshly laid, smooth asphalt, I reach the Lahn. As I ride through Bad Ems, I get so distracted by the smell of fresh bread from somewhere that I ride straight over another broken bottle. Surely this is where my luck runs out, I think. Apparently not, and I find a lovely breakfast spot open at 5.45, and for the first time am able to really enjoy my food. I really enjoy the ride along the Lahn, and after some climbs and hot sections away from the river around lunchtime, I rest and eat at Balduinstein by the river. I find myself keen to get to the checkpoint sooner rather than later, looking forward to some friendly faces, and as I get closer and see the signs, I am surprised at how excited I am. Arriving at checkpoint feels wonderful, there is such a warm welcome (ha ha), and an amazing atmosphere with real beds outside, an open fire BBQ, and best of all an old barn full of shade, food and drink. There is a lot of activity there when I get there, but as it turns out, most people are leaving just as I get there (Was it something I said? Do I really smell that bad?). asphalt, I reach the Lahn. As I ride through Bad Ems, I get so distracted by the smell of fresh bread from somewhere that I ride straight over another broken bottle. Surely this is where my luck runs out, I think. Apparently not, and I find a lovely breakfast spot open at 5.45, and for the first time am able to really enjoy my food. I really enjoy the ride along the Lahn, and after some climbs and hot sections away from the river around lunchtime, I rest and eat at Balduinstein by the river. I find myself keen to get to the checkpoint sooner rather than later, looking forward to some friendly faces, and as I get closer and see the signs, I am surprised at how excited I am. Arriving at checkpoint feels wonderful, there is such a warm welcome (ha ha), and an amazing atmosphere with real beds outside, an open fire BBQ, and best of all an old barn full of shade, food and drink. There is a lot of activity there when I get there, but as it turns out, most people are leaving just as I get there (Was it something I said? Do I really smell that bad?).
It’s lovely to catch up with people I haven’t seen since Saturday, and people tell me how well I’m doing, which throws me a bit, as I hadn’t really given that a thought up until now. Ryan and Dieter are left, and the conversation we have about saddle sores and the respective challenges of the male and female anatomy for long distance cycling would have been a real ice breaker, had there been any ice to start with – no chance in these temperatures. Jochen arrives, then Julia with Rich, and later Boris and Philip; washed, fed, watered and after a fun evening chatting, I fall asleep contented and comfortable on a real mattress.
I wake around 5am, lie there quietly for a while listening to the bird song and soaking up checkpoint atmosphere for a little bit longer, then leave quickly, as I can feel the pull to linger there which others had told me about yesterday. They say that bikepacking can be an emotional, even spiritual, experience. Well, day 5 would be just that for me. As I ride off into yet another glorious early morning, I am feeling strangely emotional, maybe a little overwhelmed still from the checkpoint vibe. This isn’t helped when somewhere on the road, I pass a woman on her horse, and then a seemingly random stranger, as I am about to pass, says “Verena?”. Confused, I stop, and he explains that he’s been dotwatching me from his home near the track, offers me fresh spring water and apples, and gives me tips for my next ice cream stop.
In just about any other situation, this would be really quite creepy – but here, it is called trail magic, and it is actually really touching. As I ride on, emotion turns to philosophy, and it occurs to me how good a metaphor bikepacking is for life in general:
- Surrender control of your journey, and trust the one who has designed your track for you. (and remember that control is an illusion anyway)
- It is not always necessary, or helpful, to know what lies ahead, or to the side, of you.
- Challenge yourself and work hard, but, also rest and care for yourself, otherwise you won’t be able to go the distance
- Don’t worry about taking a few wrong turns. Just dust yourself off, get back in gear and carry on.
- When you’re not sure which turn to take, slow down, and it’s sometimes better not to take the easy option.
- Enjoy the uphills as much as the downhills; they are what makes you stronger, and you can pay more attention to the details.
- When the going is easy, check every so often that you’re still on the right track.
- It is so not about getting from A to B in a straight line; it’s about much fun you can have along the way.
Today is forecast to hit up to 40 degrees, so I plan to cover some good distance in the morning, then take it easy over the hottest part of the day, then carry on more in the evening. I enjoy the ride along the Lahn river, and treat myself to a longer break and a river swim in the afternoon. It still make the mistake of thinking that by 4 o’clock it will start to cool down, when in fact it really doesn’t. On the approach to Limburg over open fields with little shade, I get properly cooked, and the heat must have got to me, as, with the cathedral already in sight, I take a wrong turn and and up going backwards for a while along the track, before I realise my mistake and retrace my steps. By the time I get to Limburg, I am fried, and the ice cream stop is nice welcome but there are too many people, cars, and I don’t like the city after all that tranquil nature. I haven’t come past many shops today and am low on food, so when I come to a campsite at the edge of town with a beer garden, I stop. I order an alcohol free wheat beer and choose something from the small selection of equally unappealing food on offer. I try my best to force it down. I even try with the help of a second beer, but I can’t eat more than a few bites At this point, a wave of tiredness hits me, and I decide (and later wish I hadn’t) to call it a day and spend the night here. I pay up and explain that I plan to leave early in the morning, and I put my phone on charge in the cafeteria, which I am assured will be open till 9pm. I have a shower and a rest, and at 8.30 go to pick up my phone, only to find that everything is locked up and deserted – thanks a bunch, I think. A Dutch couple arrive and, absolute legends, offer to stand watch while I climb through a hedge, over a fence, and break in through an open window to get my phone back. I settle in for the night, this time not bothering with anything other than my sleeping bag on the ground in amongst all the motorhomes. Just as I am about to drop off to sleep, the lady next to me bring me a couple of bottles as a night cap, and insists on giving me a big cushion for my head. I sleep well and am ready to leave around 5.30, only to find that the campsite gates are locked, and will be until 8am. By now, I am really disliking this place. I hang around and try to stay calm, until a member of staff arrives early and I sneak out.
On day six, I enjoy myself thoroughly and am looking forward to a good long ride to make up the mileage from yesterday. I ride till 10pm just as light fades (now I’m getting the hand of this, I think to myself), and find a nice sleeping spot at the edge of a field. For the first time this week, I was actually cold in the night, and damp too. I ride on early, just to warm up. Riding through the quarries is a memorable experience anyway, but more so for me, because shortly afterwards I realise I have a puncture on my back wheel. I know I’m not exactly equipped for a roadside fix, so I half walk, half roll downhill to Braunfels, where my map indicates a bike shop. This turns out to be a tourist office which just arranges bike hire, so the shortened version is that I don’t manage to fix the puncture, and instead get utterly cooked in the afternoon heat, walking 4km along a very busy main road to the nearest train station, with a view to going to Weil, where there is another bike shop. I get there just before a train was due, so I naively hop on, thinking I’d be able to buy a ticket on the train. It’s not the train attendant telling me that she’ll have to charge me 60 euros, but her taking pity on me and telling me that she’ll let me off if I promise to buy a ticket when I get off, which suddenly sets off tears flowing down my face. At Weil, I find out that it would be another 40 minutes walk to the bike shop, and there was just no chance of me doing this. So I just sit there, crying, trying to cool down a bit, and slowly coming to the conclusion that this is going to be the end of the road for me. I let Jesko and the what’s app group know, and then the wonderful thing happens: Franziska offers to come to my aid.
A couple of hours and cold cokes later, I was good to go again! I decide to stay in a hotel in Wetzlar tonight, to get some good sleep, food, shower, properly charge my phone and wash my clothes, which turns out is much needed. It feels strange to sleep indoors for the first time in a week, but after a record 18 minute breakfast and re-packing the bike, I set off for my final day, feeling fresh, rested, and happy.
Michael, who lives near the track and who had finished yesterday, meets me on the road for a quick chat and farewell and a photo. Today, I really enjoy the riding, which feels a bit different: on the one hand I am very focussed on getting to the finish as swiftly as I can; on the other hand I am very much aware that it’ll all be over in a few hours, so I really savour the ride. At Rewe in Usingen, I have one last of those conversations with a local shopper trying to explain bikepacking over lunch, then I’m off for the final leg. Just before the start of the climb to Feldberg, I am surprised by Jesko, Lissa and Ryan. It’s great to see them, and the prospect of me finishing soon starts feeling ever more real. I don’t linger at the summit of Grosser Feldberg, party because it is busy and ugly, and partly because I want to make sure I get onto the right track down. The descent is sweet, and at Kelkheim I stop for one final top up of my water bottles before being joined by Johannes for some company for the last few kms to the finish, where the warmest welcome awaits me (literally!).
So this is where I express my thanks to those who have made this whole wonderful experience possible for me:
Thanks to Alison, who last year introduced me to the wonder of bivvy bags, wild camping, and the necessity of electrolyte tablets in hot weather.
Thanks to Jochen, without whose last minute etrex wizardry I wouldn’t have got very far.
Thanks to Franziska, for coming to my rescue.
Massive thanks to Jesko for putting together such an amazing track, and to everyone involved with organizing and supporting the event.
Final and biggest thanks I guess though have to go to my rental bike – considering we were on a proper “blind date” and had never met each other before, we made a really good team.